A 13 October 1775 resolution of the Continental Congress established what is now the United States Navy with “a swift sailing vessel, to carry ten carriage guns, and a proportionable number of swivels, with eighty men, be fitted, with all possible despatch, for a cruise of three months….”
After the United States won its independence, however, Congress, under the Articles of Confederation, was too weak to maintain more than a token armed force. The United States had financed the war through huge foreign loans and by issuing paper money. Without taxing power, the Confederation could not pay off the debt. Although the government possessed one tremendous asset, western lands, it would take time to translate these holdings into cash. For the present, the Confederation government could not afford to maintain a single warship. The last ship of the Continental Navy, the frigate Alliance, was sold in 1785, and its commander, Captain John Barry, returned to civilian life. The navy disappeared and the army dwindled to a mere 700 men.
Congressional debate on the wisdom of reviving the navy began in earnest at the end of 1793. In his annual address to Congress on 3 December, President Washington spoke in general terms of the nation’s need to prepare to defend itself: “If we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it; if we desire to secure peace..., it must be known, that we are at all times ready for War.” A few days later, news reached Philadelphia of the truce between Portugal and Algiers, opening the way for Barbary corsairs to cruise the Atlantic and imperil trade with much of Europe. On 16 December, the President forwarded to Congress documents on the unsatisfactory negotiations with the Barbary powers. In response to these events, the House of Representatives resolved on 2 January 1794 “that a naval force adequate to the protection of the commerce of the United States, against the Algerine corsairs, ought to be provided,” and appointed a committee to prepare a report on what kind of naval force would be necessary to deal with the menace. On 20 January 1794, committee chairman Thomas Fitzsimons, a Federalist from Pennsylvania, reported a resolution to authorize the procurement of six frigates, a force thought sufficient for the purpose.
The “Act providing a Naval Armament” authorizing the President to acquire six frigates, four of 44 guns each and two of 36, by purchase or otherwise, passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 50 to 39. The act passed the Senate and was signed by the President on 27 March 1794.
In March 1798, overworked Secretary of War James McHenry brought before Congress the problem of his responsibility for naval affairs. Naval administration had become a significant portion of his department’s work, as it had for the Department of the Treasury, which oversaw all the Navy’s contracting and disbursing. The Department of War also had received congressional criticism for what was seen as the mismanagement and the excessive cost of the naval construction program. In addition, growing tensions with revolutionary France induced Congress to authorize an increase in the size of the Navy and raised the possibility that the service would be called on to confront French privateers.
In response to the obvious need for an executive department responsible solely for, and staffed with, persons competent in naval affairs, Congress passed a bill establishing the Department of the Navy. President John Adams signed the historic act on 30 April 1798. Benjamin Stoddert, a Maryland merchant who had served as secretary to the Continental Board of War during the American Revolution, became the first Secretary of the Navy.
Summarized from “Reestablishment of the Navy, 1787-1801: Historical Overview and Select Bibliography,” by Michael J. Crawford and Christine F. Hughes.
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Some Continental and Early U.S. Navy Ships
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